Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle by Sanford Robinson Gifford

What does nobility represent to you?

In the mid-19th century Windsor Castle, the royal residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, symbolized England’s noble history and culture. The castle became a popular destination for American tourists, and Gifford traveled to Windsor in 1855 during his first tour of Europe. In a journal entry from that trip, he described observing and sketching a stunning view of the castle at twilight.

View of Greenwood Lake, New Jersey

View of Greenwood Lake, New Jersey by Jasper Francis Cropsey

How does scale affect your view of this painting?

Cropsey first visited Greenwood Lake in 1843 and returned there often to sketch: “I lived at Greenwood Lake during the summer for a number of years and found a strong attachment to the place. It has been the origin of many of my pictures.” This scene shows the artist’s interest in the light and atmosphere of the landscape, the majesty of which is emphasized by the inclusion of a small figure who stands in for the viewer and takes in the sweeping view.

A River Landscape

A River Landscape by Asher Brown Durand

What does spirituality look like?

In his influential series of articles “Letters on Landscape Painting” (1855), Durand shared his view that a realistic depiction of nature could reveal spiritual qualities: “The humblest scenes of your successful labors will become hallowed ground to which, in memory at least, you will make many a joyous pilgrimage, and . . . in the fullness of your emotions, kiss the very earth that bore the print of your oft-repeated footsteps.”

A View from the Berkshire Hills, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts

A View from the Berkshire Hills, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts by Sanford Robinson Gifford

What words can be used to describe light?

Gifford, who once described landscape painting as “air painting,” here captured the hazy atmosphere of a sunny afternoon in autumn, presenting us with a low, hilly landscape rolling beneath a pale and misty sky. This painting was inspired by a sketching trip the artist took in September 1862, when he spent about three weeks traveling with the artists Launt Thompson and Worthington Whittredge along the Housatonic River in western Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The Narrows, New York Bay

The Narrows, New York Bay by Thomas Birch

What is the impact of urbanization?

In 1836, the travel writer Nathaniel Parker Willis described the entrance to New York City’s harbor, praising “the bold shores, the bright green banks, the clustering woods, and tasteful villas, which make up the charms of this lovely strait.” In Birch’s painting of the area, close attention is paid to the natural details of the foreground and the region’s geography: in the foreground and to the left is Brooklyn, and to the right is Staten Island.

On the Hudson

On the Hudson by John George Brown

Is this river a place of tranquility or turbulence?

This painting depicts the Hudson River north of New York City looking toward the New Jersey side, where the water is flanked by high rocky cliffs known as the Palisades. The busy waterway is shown full of pleasure craft bringing visitors to the many tourist hotels, hiking trails, and picnic areas along the river. The Palisades appear to glow with autumn light, their tall cliffs casting shadows on the water and steamboats below.

Rainy Season in the Tropics

Rainy Season in the Tropics by Frederic Edwin Church

What does your eye encounter as it travels through this painting?

Here a rainbow arcs seamlessly over a mist-filled gorge, rising above craggy peaks and a humid green jungle. A passing shower sweeps to the left; on the right, the clouds part to reveal a bright blue sky. Church did not provide viewers with any ground to stand on: we are suspended in the air above this magical, fictionalized scene. We can only look down in wonder upon the crashing waterfall, the verdant jungle, and the rocky canyon beneath us.


Twilight by Frederic Edwin Church

Does sunset look different from sunrise?

The setting sun was one of Church’s favorite subjects. It gave him the opportunity to depict the glowing, light-suffused effects of clouds and atmosphere that give the appearance of illuminating the canvas from within rather than relying on light striking the canvas. Mysterious and evocative, Twilight creates an impression that is simultaneously serene and ominous. Some of these effects were made possible by new pigments introduced in the 1850s, which created richer tones and vivid colors.

From the Harz Mountains (Riders in the Harz Mountains)

From the Harz Mountains (Riders in the Harz Mountains) by Worthington Whittredge

Where do you notice the vastness of the sky?

This landscape presents a view in the Harz Mountains, the northernmost range in Germany. Whittredge traveled there in the summer of 1852, accompanied by the German painter Karl Friedrich Lessing, a teacher at the Düsseldorf Academy. A late-summer sketching trip was part of a landscape painter’s life in Düsseldorf, and Whittredge participated in the ritual annually, making drawings of the local countryside.

Orchid and Hummingbird

Orchid and Hummingbird by Martin Johnson Heade

What can artists teach us about faraway places?

At the painting’s center, a brilliant green and fuchsia hummingbird, painted life size, perches on the leaf of a Cattleya orchid. The orchid, a starburst of cotton-candy pink, is rooted onto the branch of a tree that is almost overgrown with moss and vines. The branch extends back and around to frame the bird and flower against the fully realized landscape of a South American mountain lake under a humid and stormy sky.